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Despite security increase, school shootings continue

School Shootings

A Sparks Middle School student is comforted as he cries after being released from Agnes Risley Elementary, to which some students were evacuated after a shooting on Oct. 21 in Nevada.(The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – There’s been no real reduction in the number of U.S. school shootings despite increased security put in place after the rampage at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

In Pennsylvania and New Mexico, Colorado and Tennessee, and elsewhere, gunfire has echoed through school hallways, and killed students or their teachers in some cases. “Lockdown” is now part of the school vocabulary.

An Associated Press analysis finds that there have been at least 11 school shootings this academic year alone, in addition to other cases of gun violence, in school parking lots and elsewhere on campus, when classes were not in session.

Experts say the rate of school shootings is statistically unchanged since the mid- to late-1990s, yet still remains troubling.

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said there have been about 500 school-associated violent deaths in the past 20 years.

The numbers don’t include a string of recent shootings at colleges and universities. Just last week, a man was shot and critically wounded at the Palm Bay Campus of Eastern Florida State College, according to police.

Finding factors to blame, rightfully or not, is almost the easy part: bad parenting, easy access to guns, less value for the sanctity of life, violent video games, a broken mental health system.

Stopping the violence isn’t.

Bill Bond, who was principal at Heath High School in West Paducah in 1997 when a 14-year-old freshman fired on a prayer group, killing three female students and wounding five, sees few differences in how shootings are carried out today. The one consistency, he said, is that the shooters are males confronting hopelessness.

Schools are generally much safer than they were five, 10 or 15 years ago, Stephens said. While a single death is one too many, Stephens noted that perspective is important. In Chicago there were 500 homicides in 2012, about the same number in the nation’s 132,000-plus K-12 schools over two decades.

The recent budget deal in Congress provides $140 million to support safe school environments, a $29 million increase, according to the office of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

About 90 percent of districts have tightened security since the Newtown shootings, estimates Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Many schools now have elaborate school safety plans and more metal detectors, surveillance cameras and fences. They’ve taken other steps, too, such as requiring ID badges and dress codes. Similar to fire drills, some schools practice locking down classrooms, among their responses to potential violence.

The incident involving the 5-year-old in Memphis led to the use of hand-held metal detecting wands inside elementary schools in Shelby County’s school district.

Attention has also focused on hiring school resource officers, sworn law enforcement officers who are trained to work in a school environment, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. He said his organization estimates there are about 10,000 of them in the United States.

Confronting a shooter certainly carries risks.

Weingarten said more emphasis needs to be placed on improving school cultures by ensuring schools have resources for counselors, social workers and after-care programs. Many of these kinds of programs were scaled back during budget cuts of recent years.

Experts have said a healthy school culture can prevent such incidents and even lead students to tell adults about classmates who display warning signs that they could commit such violence.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that he also believes strong mental health support systems in schools are important. But he said schools are doing a “fantastic” job with school security and often schools are the safest place in a community.

Bond, who is now the safe schools specialist with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said there was a time when he believed school shootings would stop. He’s come to a sad realization that gives him a “sick pit in my stomach” that they won’t end, he said.

“Schools are still part of the American society, and the American society is violent,” Bond said.

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